When we hear the term “stagnating,” it likely elicits a response from us of something unhealthy and functioning poorly. Although it is sometimes the case that something stagnates for bad reasons, it is also true that stagnation is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on what we are talking about. When it comes to churches, there can be many reasons for a church to stagnate. Not all of them are bad, and not all are under the church’s control.
Let me share four scenarios, and where we go from here.
First, healthy non-growth– small communities
A church can be healthy when it is not growing because not all churches are in communities that are growing. For example, this sometimes occurs in rural ministry. If a church is in a town of 100 people and 30 people are at that church, that church is doing an amazing job because it has reached a third of the town.
In such a church, growth might not be likely. Of course, this example of a church should continue to reach out to those other 70 people who don’t know Jesus. But the reality is, it’s just not the case that growth is always a possibility.
And there are, indeed, other scenarios where a church can be healthy and not growing.
But, sometimes a church is not growing for other reasons.
Second, sometimes God is disiciplining a church
Sometimes churches are not growing because God is stopping the growth as he is disciplining the church. Perhaps the church has not been faithful. However, we must be careful not to hastily assume a church is not growing because God is disciplining it.
It is easy to look at a church, especially from the outside, and say the reason the church is not growing is for such and such a reason: it’s under the discipline of the Lord, it’s dysfunctional, God doesn’t want to bring new believers into a church that is so unfaithful, on and on.
But we all know of churches that are not faithful to the gospel and do grow. And we know of churches that are faithful to the gospel and don’t grow. We shouldn't immediately assume that that non-growth is God disciplining a church, though that does happen.
Third, sometimes churches are stagnant before of the “faithful remnant” mindset
In some areas of the country and in some circles of Christianity, there is a re-emerging growing remnant mentality. There is an attitude of “We’re the remnants; we’re the few and everyone else is unfaithful.” This view results in the pervading, but often unspoken belief that anyone who grows is doing something wrong.
In some towns, one of the ways to get a bad reputation is to be a growing church. Someone will point the finger and say the church is growing for some wrong reason. It is true that most of us know of examples of churches that are growing for the wrong reason. However, the remnant mentality—this belief that it is somehow godlier to decline, to purge out the sinful from among you—is unhelpful at best, and destructive at worst.
I do believe in regenerative church membership—I believe you should have a community that is of believers. There are also times when it is appropriate in a church for a member to be lovingly put out of the church in the hopes of that person repenting and returning. But we should never glamorize declining attendance; we should want to grow. A “faithful remnant” mindset can stagnate a church, and it must be broken in order for the church to grow.
Fourth, some churches are stagnant due to insufficient leadership
Even without a such a small rural setting or a remnant mindset, your church may still end up stagnating. Sometimes, our churches grow and then they stop—leaving us questioning why. It may be due to the way your leadership is designed. A church of under 100 members can operate primarily on a relational design – most people have a direct connection with the pastor and discipleship passes relationship to relationship.
However, as a church grows beyond 100, the leadership style must shift to accommodate this growth. The board of leadership must expand to create a setting where discipleship may still flourish without direct connection to the senior pastor.
Such a systematic change in leadership style can be difficult for pastors because it can result in a necessary decrease in personal control and intimate relationships. Nevertheless, it is essential for pastors to expand their leadership board when their church is growing, so that their church might grow in its capacity to disciple and to serve.
Sufficient leadership is not a cure-all for stagnation, however. Sometimes, our churches need a greater focus on outreach. If you are not reaching new people, how will your church grow? How is your church doing evangelistically? Do the pastors take time out of their schedules to share the gospel with those who have not heard it? Do they seek out opportunities to learn more about evangelism through conferences or seminars? Is the congregation encouraged to personally share the gospel? Do the unchurched feel welcome in your church?
A study of small churches (attendance up to 250) by the Billy Graham Center, in partnership with LifeWay Research, the Caskey Center for Church Excellence, and 11 other denominations, examined the “key factors that predict growth through conversion.”
The study found that the number one reason churches grow through conversion is if “the church attracts and keeps a higher percentage of unchurched attendees. These churches are places of invitation, welcome, and involvement for the unchurched.”
Take a look at your programming and the ministries you have in place to reach out to unbelievers, both ones who visit your church and ones who have not yet set foot there. Making sure your church is a loving, welcoming environment that genuinely seeks to share the gospel is a great way to address stagnation and to actively pursue growth.
Here at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, our Church Evangelism Initiative helps senior pastors work in cohorts to see their church grow through conversion. Additionally, we’ve created a 6-chapter evangelism study for anyone in your church to take. We invite you to journey through it as a church or in small groups.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.